The Joys of Infrastructure

cover for How Infrastructure WorksI just finished a wonderful book that explained what it would take for everyone on Earth to live the good life. It was all about infrastructure.

Don’t stop reading! Infrastructure is far from boring, I promise you, especially when the person explaining it to you is Deb Chachra, an engineering professor who both understands how things work and how to explain them. (I’ll just note right here that she has read some science fiction and philosophy along the way.)

The book is called How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World. And no, it’s not a treatise on pipes or wiring or highway construction. It’s an overview of how all those things come together to make modern life possible.

Even if you’ve thought a lot about infrastructure — most of us only think about it when ours fails — this book will give you some deep insights into just how important it is and, even more importantly, how infrastructure design sets in place all our lives.

One of the first things I got from the book is that modern infrastructure is what makes our lives comfortable and possible in the United States and other highly developed countries. We have power at the flick of a switch, water when we turn on a tap, phone service (land lines even still exist, though most of us are using mobile phones these days). The wastewater gets taken away and treated.

Further, we have roads that go everywhere. In some places, we also have other transit options besides cars.

Most of us have access to good food even if we don’t live near where food is grown. That’s due to shipping systems, which also bring us other things we need.

That’s the point: all these things make modern life possible. We don’t have to dig our own wells or fetch water from the nearest creek (if there is one). We don’t have to cut up logs and feed them into a wood burning stove to cook and keep our homes warm. We can be in touch with people all around the world without leaving home or even waiting for the mail (and of course, mail is an infrastructure).

A couple of hundred years ago, people didn’t have most of these things. There were roads and there were shops and some supply systems, but they were not nearly as convenient as they are today.

Despite the fantasy of the “freedom” of living off the grid, the truth is that living in a system with modern infrastructure gives people a great deal more freedom to do something beyond just survival. Continue reading “The Joys of Infrastructure”

Miracle and Wonder

So my kid had a vertebra removed. (CW: surgery)

Let me back up. I am a long-time medical history nerd; I wrote a whole book that touched on medieval medical education and midwifery, and (as one does) I left 90% of my research on the cutting room floor. My favorite factoid–which did make it into the book–is that around 1200 or so the European medical establishment came up with a new way to treat a broken leg: a splint to help the bone heal in its proper alignment. Because up to that point the treatment was to bend the leg so that the heel touched the buttock and tie it in that position, essentially self-splinting. Of course, once the bone healed, the leg was, if not useless, badly malformed. Splinting seems like a simple fix–but of course, it was controversial at the time.

So was hand-washing, when it comes to that. When Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of maternal death in puerperal fever post-childbirth could be reduced from almost 20% to 2% by the simple expedient of antiseptic procedure–hand-washing using chlorinated line solution, he was attacked by the medical establishment. As near as I can tell, they were insulted by the notion that they might be infecting their patients–even if they were coming directly from treating a septic wound to delivering a baby. Semmelweis couldn’t explain the mechanism of infection–it wasn’t until after his death that Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister popularized antiseptic procedure. Poor Ignaz had a breakdown (or was said to have had one by the colleagues who had him institutionalized) and he died of gangrene from a wound he got at the asylum.

That was 166 years ago. There was no question about hand-washing or germ theory at the hospital where the kid was treated. And there was a whole lot of stuff that seemed miraculous to my eyes. Over the course of just-a-titch over 11 hours, the neurosurgeon went in, took out the offending vertebra, put in a bone graft taken from a rib, wrapped the whole thing in a “cage” around which new bone will grow, and fused the new graft to two vertebrae on either side. The fact that they can do this at all takes my breath away (as the kid’s husband put it, “to us, it’s a miracle, but to the doctor it’s Thursday”). There are the small patient-comfort things that they do which can have an outsized effect on patient outcome–the drapes or garments that fill with warmed air to keep the patient warm during the surgery, for one, and all the monitoring to make sure that nothing in the rest of the body is slipping sideways while the surgeon was doing his work. I cannot even number all the things the anesthesiologist was tracking.

And then there’s this: nerve conduction monitoring. When you’re putting screws into vertebrae, you don’t want to get too close to the myriad nerves that run through the spinal column. Bad Things Could Happen. So they wired the kid to monitor nerve conduction in all her limbs, but especially in the legs and feet. And the monitoring was done by attendants in Idaho. Which doesn’t inspire awe until you learn that the surgery was taking place in California. Rather than fill up the operating room with extra bodies keeping track of nerve conduction, it’s easier and less costly and more effective to do it virtually. And by Jove, she came through with all the nerves and sensation intact.

As near as I can tell from a quick Google, vertebral corpectomy (removing a vertebra) has been around since the 1950s. I suspect that it was not, at the time, the routine high-success-rate procedure it is now. For nearly 70 years they’ve been refining the process and the tools, getting it closer to right, just in time for my daughter to need it. There’s a lot about medicine as it is practiced in this country that needs work. But all this week I’ve had this running through my head:

These are the days of miracle and wonder…
Medicine is magical and magical is artThink of the boy in the bubbleAnd the baby with the baboon heart

–Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble

[reprint] Psychedelics, Transformation, and the Brain

I admit to being a biology nerd. Nothing delights me more than understanding how our brains work. This reprint offers a fascinating glimpse into how psychedelics might turbo-charge change (insight? enlightenment? feelings of transcendent peace?).

Psychedelics plus psychotherapy can trigger rapid changes in the brain − new research at the level of neurons is untangling how

New research hints at how psychedelics can trigger rapid, lasting change.
wildpixel/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Edmund S. Higgins, Medical University of South Carolina

The human brain can change – but usually only slowly and with great effort, such as when learning a new sport or foreign language, or recovering from a stroke. Learning new skills correlates with changes in the brain, as evidenced by neuroscience research with animals and functional brain scans in people. Presumably, if you master Calculus 1, something is now different in your brain. Furthermore, motor neurons in the brain expand and contract depending on how often they are exercised – a neuronal reflection of “use it or lose it.”

People may wish their brains could change faster – not just when learning new skills, but also when overcoming problems like anxiety, depression and addictions.

Clinicians and scientists know there are times the brain can make rapid, enduring changes. Most often, these occur in the context of traumatic experiences, leaving an indelible imprint on the brain.

But positive experiences, which alter one’s life for the better, can occur equally as fast. Think of a spiritual awakening, a near-death experience or a feeling of awe in nature.

a road splits in the woods, sun shines through green leafy trees
A transformative experience can be like a fork in the road, changing the path you are on.
Westend61 via Getty Images

Social scientists call events like these psychologically transformative experiences or pivotal mental states. For the rest of us, they’re forks in the road. Presumably, these positive experiences quickly change some “wiring” in the brain.

How do these rapid, positive transformations happen? It seems the brain has a way to facilitate accelerated change. And here’s where it gets really interesting: Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy appears to tap into this natural neural mechanism.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy

Those who’ve had a psychedelic experience usually describe it as a mental journey that’s impossible to put into words. However, it can be conceptualized as an altered state of consciousness with distortions of perception, modified sense of self and rapidly changing emotions. Presumably there is a relaxation of the higher brain control, which allows deeper brain thoughts and feelings to emerge into conscious awareness.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy combines the psychology of talk therapy with the power of a psychedelic experience. Researchers have described cases in which subjects report profound, personally transformative experiences after one six-hour session with the psychedelic substance psilocybin, taken in conjunction with psychotherapy. For example, patients distressed about advancing cancer have quickly experienced relief and an unexpected acceptance of the approaching end. How does this happen?

glowing green tendrils of a neuron against a black background
Neuronal spines are the little bumps along the spreading branches of a neuron.
Patrick Pla via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Research suggests that new skills, memories and attitudes are encoded in the brain by new connections between neurons – sort of like branches of trees growing toward each other. Neuroscientists even call the pattern of growth arborization.

Researchers using a technique called two-photon microscopy can observe this process in living cells by following the formation and regression of spines on the neurons. The spines are one half of the synapses that allow for communication between one neuron and another.

Scientists have thought that enduring spine formation could be established only with focused, repetitive mental energy. However, a lab at Yale recently documented rapid spine formation in the frontal cortex of mice after one dose of psilocybin. Researchers found that mice given the mushroom-derived drug had about a 10% increase in spine formation. These changes had occurred when examined one day after treatment and endured for over a month.

diagram of little bumps along a neuron, enlarged at different scales
Tiny spines along a neuron’s branches are a crucial part of how one neuron receives a message from another.
Edmund S. Higgins
A mechanism for psychedelic-induced change

Continue reading “[reprint] Psychedelics, Transformation, and the Brain”

Sometimes Vindication Happens

I am thrilled to see Dr. Katalin Karikó and her research partner Dr. Drew Weissman win the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on messenger RNA (mRNA).

It’s not just that their years of work provided the basis for the mRNA vaccines against Covid that have saved so many lives and protected even more people from serious illness. More important to me is that Dr. Karikó stuck to her research despite being shoved aside — she’s an adjunct professor — and never getting grants.

She believed in the potential for mRNA and she was right even though no one paid any attention to her except Dr. Weissman. “No one” includes prestigious journals like Nature and Science.

There are a lot of implications in all this.

First, I find Dr. Karikó an excellent role model for scientists, inventors, writers, artists, activists, and the many others who have a vision of something that can be done. Hang in there. You might succeed in what you’re doing and even might be recognized for it.

But let’s admit that being recognized is a long shot, especially in one’s lifetime. All too many of our great artists and even scientists died broke, with their work only being acknowledged much later.

I suspect it is even more common that people do good work that never gets noticed, maybe never even gets used. It’s not them, it’s the system, and we are all the poorer for those losses.

And of course, some people hang onto a vision that is, in fact, lunacy. In truth, though, I think far more people who have a vision worth pursuing give up because it’s too damn hard.

I tend to hope that everyone who sees something important, something vital, something perhaps only they see stays with it despite a lack of support. This is core to our humanity. Continue reading “Sometimes Vindication Happens”

Living in the Anthropocene

According to First Dog on the Moon (I do rigorous research for these essays), some geologists have decided that the Earth moved from the Holocene into the Anthropocene in 1950.

Although First Dog also points out that there is a bit of scientific kerfuffle over that date, I’ve decided to go with it. By the time anyone dealing with what constitutes an epoch makes it official, I will probably have shuffled off this mortal coil, so I have to make to do with the facts I have.

The thing I like best about choosing 1950 as a date is that it means my entire life (give or take a year) has been lived in the Anthropocene. And that feels about right to me.

Given the current disaster news – the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast is about the temperature of a nice hot tub right now and that’s not even the worst thing going on – the years of my lifetime feel like the end result of the work of that segment of humanity who believe the purpose of life is their personal dominion over the planet, all of its other life forms, and most people.

While there is a dangerous sect of religious dominionists, the secular kind have done most of the damage. The human race over my lifetime appears to have been well-populated with people who can look at a beautiful landscape and think of all the ways to destroy it so that they can make something imaginary, which is to say money.

A lifetime that includes “plastics” (why, yes, I did see The Graduate back in the day), vast expansion of nuclear bombs and nuclear power without equal understanding of what we were doing, and human-engineered existential threat (I’m not talking about chatbots) seems like a perfect place to start the anthropocene.

I mean, I grew up a mile from an oil refinery. Continue reading “Living in the Anthropocene”

Trojan Planets, Diamond Stars, and Other Astronomical Wonders

1st known ‘Trojan’ planets discovered locked in the exact same orbit around a star

Astronomers have discovered the first evidence of ultra-rare ‘Trojan’ planets: two sibling planets bound on the same orbit around the same star.

The potential co-orbiting planets, dancing around the young star PDS 70 roughly 370 light-years away, consist of a Jupiter-size planet and a cloud of debris — possibly the shattered remains of a dead planet, or the gathering building blocks of one yet to be born.

Trojan planets get their unusual name from the two asteroid clusters seen around Jupiter, which, upon their discovery, were split into Greeks and Trojans (the opposing sides of the mythical Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad) based on their proximity to the gas giant’s gravitationally stable Lagrange points.

Lagrange points are places in a solar system where the gravitational pulls of a star and an orbiting planet balance out the motion of an object’s orbit, trapping the object so that it moves in lock-step with the planet.


White dwarfs are truly strange objects. After a lifetime of billions of years of fusion, they transform themselves into something else completely different. They transition from blazing balls of plasma to degenerate lumps of carbon that eventually crystallize into diamonds that last for unimaginably long time periods.

It takes a quadrillion years for a white dwarf to crystallize, and since the Universe is not even 14 billion years old, astronomers will never spot a fully crystallized one. But this research removes some of the mystery by finding one that’s just starting to become a cosmic diamond. Curious astronomers will study more of these bizarre stellar remnants, and one day, we may know exactly how and when something so strange can happen.

A skyscraper-size asteroid flew closer to Earth than the moon — and scientists didn’t notice until 2 days later

Now dubbed 2023 NT1, the roughly 200-foot-wide (60 meters) space rock sailed past our planet on July 13, traveling at an estimated 53,000 mph (86,000 km/h), according to NASA. However, because the rock flew toward Earth from the direction of the sun, our star’s glare blinded telescopes to the asteroid’s approach until long after it had passed.

Astronomers didn’t catch wind of the building-size rock until July 15, when a telescope in South Africa — part of the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), an array of telescopes designed to spot asteroids several days to weeks before any potential impact — caught the rock making its exit from our neighborhood. More than a dozen other telescopes also spotted the rock shortly afterward, according to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.

Hundreds of ‘ghost stars’ haunt the Milky Way’s center. Scientists may finally know why

“Planetary nebulas offer us a window into the heart of our galaxy and this insight deepens our understanding of the dynamics and evolution of the Milky Way’s bulge region,” University of Manchester astrophysicist Albert Zijlstra said in a statement.

Studying 136 planetary nebulas in the thickest part of the Milky Way, the galactic bulge, with the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the team discovered that each is unrelated and comes from different stars, which died at different times and spent their lives in different locations.

The researchers also found that the shapes of these planetary nebulas line up in the sky in the same way. Not only this, but they are also aligned almost parallel to the plane of the Milky Way.

Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors

On May 15, ASHRAE — the association of engineers who work in heating, air conditioning, and ventilation — set out its Proposed Standard 241P, Control of Infectious Aerosols.

They are soliciting comments on it until May 26 from the public. Links and instructions for comments can be found here.

This standard, which was put together over six months — lightning speed for ASHRAE, which often takes years to develop new standards due to its painstaking process — was built on years of work by the organization on indoor air quality and included some input from public health experts.

According to ASHRAE:

The standard will address long-range transmission of infectious aerosols and provides minimum requirements for:

  • Equivalent outdoor air (combined effect of ventilation, filtration, and air cleaning) for use during Infection Risk Mitigation Mode
  • Room air distribution to reduce risk
  • Characterization of filter and air cleaner effectiveness and safety
  • Commissioning, including development and implementation of a Building Readiness Plan
  • System operation in Infection Risk Mitigation Mode during periods of high risk
  • Maintenance tasks and their minimum frequency
  • Residences and health care facilities

ASHRAE issued some recommendations early in the pandemic that provided guidelines for the kind of filtration that should be used in buildings to minimize transmission of airborne viruses. Those guidelines, though very good, were based on ongoing work on indoor air quality and did not include the kind of comprehensive work they brought to this new standard.

These standards, once incorporated into building codes and other regulations for buildings, will be a major step forward in making sure that the indoor air is safe to breathe. In a world in which many people spend most of their time indoors, that is a crucial element of public health.

These standards will minimize the transmission of airborne diseases including, but not limited to, Covid. Continue reading “Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors”

Tyrannosaurus Lips and Other Wonders of Science

Once my science classes progressed beyond “the parts of the cell,” I loved them. So much so that my college degree is in Biology, which entailed many classes in Physics and General and Organic Chemistry. Fast forward many decades, I had the joy to attend Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, about which I have previously blogged. But I’ve never given up my love of Things Prehistoric. Here are two wonderful new stories:

T. rex had thin lips and a gummy smile, controversial study suggests


Theropod dinosaurs — a group of bipedal, mostly meat-eating dinosaurs that included T. rexVelociraptor and Spinosaurus — may instead have concealed their deadly chompers behind thin lips that kept their teeth hydrated and tough enough to crush bones. 

Paleontologists had already suggested that T. rex may have had lips, and there has been debate whether carnivorous dinosaurs looked more like present-day crocodiles, which don’t have lips and have protruding teeth, or if they more likely resembled monitor lizards, whose large teeth are covered by scaly lips.

Rhino-like ‘thunder beasts’ grew massive in the evolutionary blink of an eye after dinos died off


In the aftermath of the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact, a second explosion rocked the animal kingdom. 

This time, it was the mammals that blew up. Rhino-like horse relatives that had lived in the shadow of the dinosaurs became gigantic “thunder beasts” as suddenly as an evolutionary lightning strike,  new research, published Thursday (May 11) in the journal Science(opens in new tab), shows.

“Even though other mammalian groups attained large sizes before [they did], brontotheres were the first animals to consistently reach large sizes,” study first author Oscar Sanisidro(opens in new tab), a researcher with the Global Change Ecology and Evolution Research Group at the University of Alcalá in Spain. “Not only that, they reached maximum weights of 4-5 tons [3.6 to 4.5 metric tons] in just 16 million years, a short period of time from a geological perspective.”

Last year, weird “bramble snout” fossils were documented at the site called “Castle Bank,” but new research published May 1 in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution(opens in new tab) describes the whole fossil deposit.

Hosting a myriad of soft-bodied marine creatures nd their organs, which are scarcely preserved in the fossil record, the site resembles the world-renowned Cambrian deposits of Burgess Shale in Canada and Qingjiang biota in China. The rocks of Castle Bank, however, are 50 million years younger and give researchers a unique window into how soft-bodied life diversified in the Ordovician Period (485.4 million to 443.8 million years ago), according to a statement released by Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales.

Researchers believe they’ve recovered more than 170 species from the site, most of which are new to science. These include what appear to be late examples of Cambrian groups, including the weirdest wonders of evolution, the nozzle-nosed opabiniids, and early examples of animals that evolved later, including barnacles, shrimp and an unidentified six-legged insect-like creature. The rocks are also home to the fossilized digestive systems of trilobites and the eyes and brain of an unidentified arthropod, as well as preserved worms and sponges.

Love Letters from Space Telescopes

 What an age we live in!

A spectacular trio of merging galaxies in the constellation Boötes takes center stage in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These three galaxies are set on a collision course and will eventually merge into a single larger galaxy, distorting one another’s spiral structure through mutual gravitational interaction in the process. An unrelated foreground galaxy appears to float serenely near this scene, and the smudged shapes of much more distant galaxies are visible in the background. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Sun. Article here.

On March 1, 2023, NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew by Jupiter’s moon Io, coming within 51,500 km (32,030 miles) of the innermost and third-largest of the four Galilean moons. The stunning new images provide the best and closest view of the most volcanic moon in our Solar System since the New Horizons mission flew past Io and the Jupiter system in 2006 on its way to Pluto.

Jupiter’s moon Io, as seen by the JunoCam instrument on Juno, on March 1, 2023. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/ processed by Kevin M. Gill.
Cleary, Io still looks like a pizza. The mottled and colorful surface comes from the volcanic activity, with hundreds of vents and calderas on the surface that create a variety of features. Volcanic plumes and lava flows across the surface show up in all sorts of colors, from red and yellow to orange and black. Some of the lava “rivers” stretch for hundreds of kilometers

Glimpsed only occasionally at the hearts of massive clusters of galaxies, ultramassive black holes are some of the largest and most elusive objects in the universe. These black hole behemoths have masses exceeding that of 10 billion suns, making them far more monstrous than even the supermassive black holes found at the centers of galaxies like the Milky Way, and their tremendous size has long perplexed astronomers.

Now, researchers studying a rare galaxy merger with three supermassive black holes at its center may have finally discovered the origins of these cosmic monsters.

Using a high-resolution cosmological simulation called ASTRID, the team modeled the evolution of the universe as it appeared about 11 billion years ago. In the simulation, the team witnessed the birth of an ultramassive black hole following the merger of the three galaxies. Each of these galaxies contained its own quasar, a supermassive black hole that feeds on gas and powers massive outbursts of radiation that can outshine all the stars in their host galaxies combined.

What’s New With Voyager 1?

 Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

This aging and still-valuable spacecraft has been exploring the outer parts of the solar system since its launch in 1977, along with its twin sibling, Voyager 2. They each traveled slightly different trajectories. Both went past Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune. They’re both now outside the solar system, sending back data about the regions of space they’re exploring.

Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter in March 1979, and Saturn in November 1980. After its close approaches to those two gas giants, it started a trajectory out of the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013. That’s when it ceased to detect the solar wind and scientists began to see an increase in particles consistent with those in interstellar space.

These days, Voyager 1 is more than 157.3 astronomical units from Earth and moving out at well over 61,000 km/hour. It’s busy collecting data about the interstellar medium and radiation from distant objects. If all goes well, the spacecraft should continue sending back data for nearly a decade. After that, it should fall silent as it travels beyond the Oort Cloud and out to the stars.

Earlier this year, however, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). Essentially, the AACS was sending telemetry data all right, but it was routing it to the wrong computer, one that had failed years ago. This corrupted the data, which led to the strangely garbled messages the ground-based crew received.

Once the engineers figured out that the old, dead computer might have been part of the problem, they had a way forward. They simply told the AACS to switch over sending to the correct computer system. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. The best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

The ongoing issue with AACS didn’t set off any fault protection systems onboard the spacecraft. If it had, Voyager 1 would have gone into “safe mode” while engineers tried to figure out what happened. During the period of garbled signals, AACS continued working, which indicated that the problem was either upstream or downstream of the unit. The fact that data were garbled provided a good clue to related computer issues.

This adapted article appeared in Universe Today. Click through for the full thing.